Short story: Two-dimensional

Day thirty-six on the ISS-2, and I can’t swallow my gel-breakfast fast enough. You’d think the new International Space Station would have updated its cuisine, but between a complete overhaul of living quarters, additional cargo space, upgrades to instruments, and a brand-new EVA system, there just wasn’t enough money left to figure out bacon in zero-G.

I don’t care. Two minutes and I’m already pulling myself into the Z-3 suit-port that’s attached to the outside of the Station. It’s so easy – you just open a port and slide straight into it. No pressurisation chambers needed. Twenty seconds and you’re stepping into space.

I push myself over to the working platform attached to the D-Port. When I reach it, my feet are over the Ganges.

The D-Port, or Dimension Portal, looks like a huge mirror, except it reflects back other dimensions. It began as a serendipitous incident at CERN, took over fifty years and countless dollars to build, but the crowning achievement of Multiverse Theory was finally switched on last month to the bated breath of eleven billion earthlings.

Day 1 was horribly anticlimactic: Black space with one star. Our first-ever cross-dimensional knock-knock, and we get a one-star universe. I floated by the D-Port like an idiot, feeling mankind’s collective “meh” ascend towards me like a prayer.

Of course, the dimensional physicists did backflips. Their baby worked, and we had the first ever proof of another dimension. It was like discovering aliens. Nonetheless, the scientific community’s primal excitement was diluted through layman disappointment and Twitter LOLs.

The idea behind our dimension-hopping expedition was to find a dimension that is similar enough to ours – ideally with only one difference. Like flying dogs or singing cows or fluorescent cucumbers. Something we could deal with. But since our math can’t pinpoint specific dimensions, we’re just switching channels until we find something to watch.

So we kept looking. That’s all you can do, by the way. The D-Port is an energy barrier that doesn’t allow sound or matter to pass through, although photons have no problem. Nonetheless, we still thought it prudent to install it in orbit, away from Earth. In theory, there must be a dimension out there where the D-Port will be more of a D-Hole.

The second dimension we found was creepy. Something out of a Lovecraft story: a universe of reds and translucent greens that pulsated like veins, all radiating out of an incandescent white sphere that I swear knew it was being watched. We recorded it, turned it off, and moved onto the next dimension while the world freaked out.

It went like that for a month: A parade of lifeless universes, some dull, some inexplicable. Even the staunchest acolytes began to lose interest. Kind of like SETI.

But today – today is history. The D-Port has finally located another Earth. The initial readings say that it’s exactly like ours – even its climate matches ours. It’s hard to believe, but here I am, hanging onto the D-Port’s platform and staring into a universe that had the same ideas as ours.

And that’s not all. The Other Earth has an orbiting station too, and they’re sending someone to say hello. That’s right: I am about to make contact with a sentient being, probably a human, from another dimension.

I’m so excited, I can feel my Maximum Absorbency Garment swell a little.

I tether myself to the platform and eye-tap the comms icon on my HUD. “Houston, this is Mission Specialist Dr Leonard Mann. Requesting all-clear for D-Port interfacing.”

“You’re good to go, Dr Mann. Just relax and follow the script.” Loaded into my tablet, the Cross-Dimensional Interfacing Protocol has been put together by our top exo-psychologists and translated in virtually every language we know, dead or alive. Crowdsourcing works wonders.

A spacesuit appears on the edge of the D-Port’s frame, slowly floating towards me. I confirm the contact my headset, although Houston’s getting real-time, hi-def feed of it.

It looks like a woman. The suit is form-fitting, and the body shape wouldn’t match a man’s in our dimension. Of course, we don’t even know how many genders they have over there.

I tell Houston all this, conscious that the whole world is listening in. As the spacesuit approaches, I can make out the face behind the helmet: Definitely a woman. Definitely human. My MAG swells a little more.

She comes to a stop on the other side of the D-Port and raises her right hand in what I can only assume is a greeting. I do the same and she smiles.

She’s beautiful – in either dimension. I can’t see her hair under her Communications Carrier, but its absence just highlights her stunning features.

“Dr Mann, this is Houston. Please proceed with the script.”

I breathe out. “Copy that, Houston.” I raise my tablet: WE COME IN PEACE. Cliché.

She smiles and produces her own tablet. Their technology looks like ours: WE KNOW.

“Houston, confirm: Subject communicated in English. Are you seeing this?”

“We are as stunned as you, Leo. Just keep going.”

I raise the tablet: WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

She grins playfully and taps her tablet: WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

I frown. “Houston, please advise.”

“The psychs say go ahead, Leo.”


She’s laughing. Hysterically.

I’m feeling a little offended. Forget the script. WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?

Her tablet flashes on the other side of the D-Port. LEONARD MANN FROM ATHENS, GEORGIA? ONLY SON OF RUSSELL AND PATRICE MANN?

I stare at her and my fingers type. YES. HOW DO YOU KNOW?

She laughs inside her helmet, and her tablet flashes with cross-dimensional excitement:


Fiction on Lablit, article on EPFL, free book!

I have a new short story over at Lablit! It is based on true events. Specifically, true events that happened to me during my PhD. Click here to read.

There is also a new article on EPFL from yours truly. High-temperature superconductors are inching closer. Click here to read.

And lastly, get your FREE copy of LAZARUS from Smashwords! Offer ends tomorrow.

– Nik

Quirky photons spin out of the Standard Model

New article on EPFL!

Doing some hardcore analysis on data from the LHC “beauty” experiment, a group at EPFL found evidence that when a bottom quark decays into a strange quark it emits a photon that’s polarized.

Why’s that important? Because it might just be a nudge towards New Physics. And no, that doesn’t mean we’ll be leaving on the Enterprise any time soon. Although…

Read more here.


The Face: Part 6 – Finale!

Part 5

Jane had to muster all her courage to keep her eyes on Peter as he lay on the hospital bed. In the end, she just told herself that she would not have to do so for long. Seven hours in the waiting room had drained her, leaving her practically numb.

Peter wasn’t a pretty sight. The doctor had told Jane that both his legs had been severed from the knee down and that he had half-drowned in the murky water. But the rest, perhaps the doctor hadn’t much time to describe properly. Or the nerve.

Peter’s right eye was closed. A large cotton bandage over the other one.

She tried not to look at the gap beneath the sheets, where his legs should be. She was not ready for that, and all she could think of was football and his bad knee, so much that at a sick moment she nearly laughed at the irony.

She took his remaining butchered hand – there were only three fingers under the bandage – and struggled inside to quiet her turmoil. But how?

His eyes opened. He didn’t smile at her, but she did. At least she tried.

“Hey babe”, she said with a shrill voice. “Looking good.”

He’s quite a mess, the doctor had said.

Peter said nothing – he just looked at her, his single eye sad and bloodshot.

Jane fought back tears. “How are you feeling? Doctor says you’ll be fine”.

He lost a lot of blood and his wounds were infected in the water, the doctor had said.

What was left of Peter’s face was pale, drained, haggard and very, very sad.

His lips moved. “I ‘m sorry”, he whispered.

Jane shook her head violently. “No, no. Don’t say that.” Tears came flooding now. “You’ll be ok, you’ll be out soon.”

He won’t last the night, the doctor had said. Sorry.

Peter squeezed her hand. “The painting…” he muttered, “… it spoke to me.”

Jane stared at him in dismay. Not only was her husband mutilated, he had gone crazy too.

Peter was still speaking, words lost and chewed and swallowed. Jane listened, and knew that she would hear that slow, wheezy, wretched voice for the rest of her life.

“It… spoke. While I drove. It said things – in my ear. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was the painting… It said you’re really unhappy, Pete.’ It said…” he coughed here and spat some blood. “It said… look at your miserable life, Pete. You helped Piper Jack because you were afraid that one day you’d end up like him. You had dreams, Pete, and now you’re cut down. This job, this compromise, this life… you hate it all. You hate your wife, don’t you, Pete? Because you failed, and you didn’t want to face up to the cost.’ And I tried, Jane, I tried to speak to it, to tell it to shut up… but… it’s voice was in my head and I couldn’t stop it because… I’m so sorry, Jane… because I knew it was right. Because I gave up. I settled. I didn’t face up to it. And I pretended…” He began to cry then, and all Jane could do was hold his hand, afraid to feel anything anymore, because she knew that her husband had tried to kill himself.

Peter slept and died an hour later.

Jane returned to an empty house late at night, after having cried herself dry. Fortunately some of Peter’s family took the burden of funeral arrangements and a friend drove her home. The friend offered to stay the night with her, but Jane insisted that she wanted to just be alone. The friend nodded in sympathy and drove off. “If you need anything, call me, no matter what”.

Jane stood at the door, daunted by the silence that loomed over her. It was heavy, oppressing, and the house was dark, like a tomb.

She shut the door behind her and leaned on it. She was exhausted, ragged, torn to shreds. The pain had retreated now, down in one of the chambers of her heart. She felt like screaming and fainting at the same time, she felt like just dropping there on the floor and staying there until she too was dead. A feeling of complete void had spread throughout her body and her limbs felt both light and heavy. And then, in the chaos of light and dark that had seized her mind, an image appeared. It didn’t surprise her.

She was expecting it.

The Face was there, in her mind’s eye, as vivid as if she was looking at it. It came from far away, out of a dark horizon, and drew nearer and nearer. What had happened to it? Did the police take it? Did it wind up in the ravine too? Or was it destroyed when they towed Peter’s truck?

She knew, of course. The face grew in her mind. She could almost touch it. She glanced towards the stairs and saw the blue light again. But she wasn’t dreaming now, was she? She was wide awake. She pushed herself off the door and walked to the light with steady paces. She kicked off her shoes and let her coat drop on the carpet. Reaching the stairs, she stood with her back to the living room’s entrance. She glanced up where the bedroom was. The blue light engulfed her, bright with clarity, easing her mind. And in that mental pause, everything became clear.

The face was only the vessel. It was an avatar of their life, of things lost in the deep, of everyday rituals, of the masks they had worn and worn out.

She turned around. It was there, smiling at her, hanging on the wall. She was not afraid of it anymore. She walked to it, firmly, unflinching from the bright light it cast.

She stood before it and they locked their gazes for a moment, studying each other patiently, both immersed in the blazing blue light, bright, cold and true.

And then she began to laugh. She laughed, until there were tears in her eyes, she laughed like a madwoman, she laughed  and laughed and turned away laughing and walked away and she disappeared into the dark house, her laughs echoing through its walls, rising and falling and cackling and echoing because she had finally seen it, seen it and could not stand to look at it anymore.

The face in the painting was hers.